What Is Operant Conditioning?

How Reinforcement and Punishment Modify Behavior

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Operant conditioning, sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning , is a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence (whether negative or positive) for that behavior.

For example, when lab rats press a lever when a green light is on, they receive a food pellet as a reward. When they press the lever when a red light is on, they receive a mild electric shock. As a result, they learn to press the lever when the green light is on and avoid the red light.

But operant conditioning is not just something that takes place in experimental settings while training lab animals. It also plays a powerful role in everyday learning. Reinforcement and punishment take place in natural settings all the time, as well as in more structured settings such as classrooms or therapy sessions.

operant conditioning
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The History of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning was first described by behaviorist B.F. Skinner , which is why you may occasionally hear it referred to as Skinnerian conditioning. As a behaviorist, Skinner believed that it was not really necessary to look at internal thoughts and motivations in order to explain behavior. Instead, he suggested, we should look only at the external, observable causes of human behavior.

Through the first part of the 20th century, behaviorism became a major force within psychology. The ideas of John B. Watson dominated this school of thought early on. Watson focused on the principles of classical conditioning , once famously suggesting that he could take any person regardless of their background and train them to be anything he chose.

Early behaviorists focused their interests on associative learning. Skinner was more interested in how the consequences of people's actions influenced their behavior.

Skinner used the term operant to refer to any "active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences." Skinner's theory explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviors we exhibit every day.

His theory was heavily influenced by the work of psychologist Edward Thorndike , who had proposed what he called the law of effect .   According to this principle, actions that are followed by desirable outcomes are more likely to be repeated while those followed by undesirable outcomes are less likely to be repeated.

Operant conditioning relies on a fairly simple premise: Actions that are followed by reinforcement will be strengthened and more likely to occur again in the future. If you tell a funny story in class and everybody laughs, you will probably be more likely to tell that story again in the future.

If you raise your hand to ask a question and your teacher praises your polite behavior, you will be more likely to raise your hand the next time you have a question or comment. Because the behavior was followed by reinforcement, or a desirable outcome, the preceding action is strengthened.

Conversely, actions that result in punishment or undesirable consequences will be weakened and less likely to occur again in the future. If you tell the same story again in another class but nobody laughs this time, you will be less likely to repeat the story again in the future. If you shout out an answer in class and your teacher scolds you, then you might be less likely to interrupt the class again.

Types of Behaviors

Skinner distinguished between two different types of behaviors

  • Respondent behaviors are those that occur automatically and reflexively, such as pulling your hand back from a hot stove or jerking your leg when the doctor taps on your knee. You don't have to learn these behaviors. They simply occur automatically and involuntarily.
  • Operant behaviors , on the other hand, are those under our conscious control. Some may occur spontaneously and others purposely, but it is the consequences of these actions that then influence whether or not they occur again in the future. Our actions on the environment and the consequences of that action make up an important part of the learning process .

While classical conditioning could account for respondent behaviors, Skinner realized that it could not account for a great deal of learning. Instead, Skinner suggested that operant conditioning held far greater importance.

Skinner invented different devices during his boyhood and he put these skills to work during his studies on operant conditioning. He created a device known as an operant conditioning chamber, often referred to today as a Skinner box . The chamber could hold a small animal, such as a rat or pigeon. The box also contained a bar or key that the animal could press in order to receive a reward.

In order to track responses, Skinner also developed a device known as a cumulative recorder. The device recorded responses as an upward movement of a line so that response rates could be read by looking at the slope of the line.

Components of Operant Conditioning

There are several key concepts in operant conditioning. The type of reinforcement or punishment that is used can have an effect on how the individual responds and the effect of conditioning. There are four types of operant conditioning that can be utilized to change behavior: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

Reinforcement is any event that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of reinforcers. In both of these cases of reinforcement, the behavior increases.

  1. Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after the behavior. In positive reinforcement situations, a response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of praise or a direct reward. If you do a good job at work and your manager gives you a bonus, that bonus is a positive reinforcer.
  2. Negative reinforcers involve the removal of an unfavorable events or outcomes after the display of a behavior. In these situations, a response is strengthened by the removal of something considered unpleasant. For example, if your child starts to scream in the middle of a restaurant, but stops once you hand them a treat, your action led to the removal of the unpleasant condition, negatively reinforcing your behavior (not your child's).

Punishment in Operant Conditioning

Punishment is the presentation of an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of punishment. In both of these cases, the behavior decreases.

  1. Positive punishment , sometimes referred to as punishment by application, presents an unfavorable event or outcome in order to weaken the response it follows. Spanking for misbehavior is an example of punishment by application.
  2. Negative punishment , also known as punishment by removal, occurs when a favorable event or outcome is removed after a behavior occurs. Taking away a child's video game following misbehavior is an example of negative punishment.


The five principles of operant conditioning are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment, and extinction. Extinction occurs when a response is no longer reinforced or punished, which can lead to the fading and disappearance of the behavior.

Operant Conditioning Reinforcement Schedules

Reinforcement is not necessarily a straightforward process, and there are a number of factors that can influence how quickly and how well new things are learned. Skinner found that when and how often behaviors were reinforced played a role in the speed and strength of acquisition . In other words, the timing and frequency of reinforcement influenced how new behaviors were learned and how old behaviors were modified.

Skinner identified several different schedules of reinforcement that impact the operant conditioning process:

  1. Continuous reinforcement involves delivering a reinforcement every time a response occurs. Learning tends to occur relatively quickly, yet the response rate is quite low. Extinction also occurs very quickly once reinforcement is halted.
  2. Fixed-ratio schedules are a type of partial reinforcement. Responses are reinforced only after a specific number of responses have occurred. This typically leads to a fairly steady response rate.
  3. Fixed-interval schedules are another form of partial reinforcement. Reinforcement occurs only after a certain interval of time has elapsed. Response rates remain fairly steady and start to increase as the reinforcement time draws near, but slow immediately after the reinforcement has been delivered.
  4. Variable-ratio schedules are also a type of partial reinforcement that involve reinforcing behavior after a varied number of responses. This leads to both a high response rate and slow extinction rates.
  5. Variable-interval schedules are the final form of partial reinforcement Skinner described. This schedule involves delivering reinforcement after a variable amount of time has elapsed. This also tends to lead to a fast response rate and slow extinction rate.

Examples of Operant Conditioning

We can find examples of operant conditioning at work all around us. Consider the case of children completing homework to earn a reward from a parent or teacher, or employees finishing projects to receive praise or promotions. More examples of operant conditioning in action include:

  • After performing in a community theater play, you receive applause from the audience. This acts as a positive reinforcer , inspiring you to try out for more performance roles.
  • You train your dog to fetch by offering him praise and a pat on the head whenever he performs the behavior correctly. This is another positive reinforcer .
  • A professor tells students that if they have perfect attendance all semester, then they do not have to take the final comprehensive exam. By removing an unpleasant stimulus (the final test), students are negatively reinforced to attend class regularly.
  • If you fail to hand in a project on time, your boss becomes angry and berates your performance in front of your co-workers. This acts as a positive punisher , making it less likely that you will finish projects late in the future.
  • A teen girl does not clean up her room as she was asked, so her parents take away her phone for the rest of the day. This is an example of a negative punishment in which a positive stimulus is taken away.

In some of these examples, the promise or possibility of rewards causes an increase in behavior. Operant conditioning can also be used to decrease a behavior via the removal of a desirable outcome or the application of a negative outcome.

For example, a child may be told they will lose recess privileges if they talk out of turn in class. This potential for punishment may lead to a decrease in disruptive behaviors.

A Word From Verywell

While behaviorism may have lost much of the dominance it held during the early part of the 20th century, operant conditioning remains an important and often used tool in the learning and behavior modification process. Sometimes natural consequences lead to changes in our behavior. In other instances, rewards and punishments may be consciously doled out in order to create a change.

Operant conditioning is something you may immediately recognize in your own life, whether it is in your approach to teaching your children good behavior or in training the family dog. Remember that any type of learning takes time. Consider the type of reinforcement or punishment that may work best for your unique situation and assess which type of reinforcement schedule might lead to the best results.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Coon, D & Mitterer, JO. Psychology: A Journey. Wadsworth, 2014.

  • Domjan, M. The Principles of Learning and Behavior, Seventh Edition. Cengage Learning, 2015.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.